Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is not the most famous painting in the world. That honor, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, goes to the “ Mona Lisa.” I won’t argue with the editors of the venerable compendium. They have a 246-year history of studying such things very carefully. But “The Scream” is gaining greater recognition in a world where we feel more like the distorted man on the bridge than the ever-serene La Gioconda.
Besides, “The Scream” makes a better finger puppet.
Ever since the Dadaist movement in the beginning of the 20th Century, mocking influential images has been a lively sport in the art world and popular culture. Munch is a favorite target.
I asked Mary Jo Thorsheim, owner of Norway Art and an authority on Munch, why “The Scream” is so popular. She explained Edvard Munch was a symbolist painter. “Symbolists looked at the inner mind and reached into our emotional landscape. The background in “The Scream” represents Munch’s state of mind,” says Mary Jo. “Munch doesn’t have the kind of appeal where people buy prints and have the image in their homes. But when the national exhibit was on tour, the lines at museums were out the door,” she says. The simple, powerful forms of Munch’s art speaks directly to our emotional selves.
Munch was reviled by critics in his own era. But Munch’s visual language is more easily read by people today. We live a life surrounded by icons and images. We understand Munch’s imagery.
Ingebretsen’s carries a variety of “The Scream” themed items. Many of these items are from The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, a company that says on its web site, “…, we have discovered that people seem to really like the giants of our culture reduced to little finger puppets, mugs and witty jokes.” I asked one of the Guild’s Deep Thinkers (my title for him) Jay Stern why he thought “The Scream” was so popular.
The painting was stolen twice, after all.
Jay said, “As an iconic image, it’s taken on more and more weight over the years as it’s held up as the epitome of expressionistic imagery. And it’s also been an object of kitsch and fun, which has only made it more iconic and recognizable. As a result, “The Scream” has become a shorthand image of existential angst. It can be both horrifying and hilarious depending on the context.”
Think MacCaulay Culkin and Home Alone.
Munch’s life was a litany of loss. He endured the death of family members, the mental illness of a sister, isolation, depression, and substance abuse. “The Scream” represents his decades of grief and anxiety. But our era has adopted the image to express daily reactions to experiences such as traffic congestion, raising teenagers, and the pain of opening one’s wallet and parting with precious cash.
The Screaming Scream wallet is Jay Stern’s current favorite item. “Every time you open the wallet, you hear a different existential scream. Hilarious,” he says, “Plus the colors and patterns of the painting transfer nicely to the wallet design.”
I find “The Scream” coffee cup, permanently parked next to my computer, a particularly good friend. There are few things that cause me to feel so completely meaningless as realizing I’ve just spent an hour battling an operating system and am on the losing side. “The Scream,” the ultimate symbol of existential isolation, reminds me that I’m not alone.
How would Munch react to our use of his painting? I like to think that someone who suffered so much in his own life would be pleased that he has added some humor to ours. Or maybe he would just scream.